Here’s a truth: Fake lives don’t matter
As children, my siblings and I, along with a few kids from the neighborhood, ended our family gardening season with a tomato battle. After a few nicely placed welts, we found the green ones hurt like hell and negotiated an arms treaty disallowing their use. We also discovered the most rotten tomatoes exploded upon launch rather than reaching their targets.
I remember the cold spray from the hose blasting away clumps of mud, sticky watermelon residue, and smashed tomatoes. In the dog days of summer, the evening cicada chorus sang praises that we’d finally be going back inside instead of chasing them. Now that I’m the one holding the hose, the reality of such moments has never been more consequential.
These days we seemingly bend every aspect of life to our will. If it’s too hot, we turn down the AC. If we don’t like the way food tastes, we add artificial flavors. We virtually experience destinations we’d never otherwise see. Meeting people and building relationships is too difficult, so we search for what and whom we want online. If we disagree with a perspective, we change the channel.
“Virtual” literally means “not physically existing as such but made by software to appear to do so.” What a painfully accurate description. When we put virtual in front of our reality for too long, we miss the authentic connections and interactions that make our brief lives worth living.
NASA regularly confronts the challenges of operating in a different reality. In the low gravity environment of the International Space Station, human bones waste away. “The proximal femoral bone loses…roughly 6% to 10% [of its mass] over a 6-month stay in space, with the recovery after returning to Earth taking at least 3 or 4 years.”
How much recovery time does six months in today’s virtual reality require?
Leveling up is no substitute for growing up. Learning how to garden on YouTube is pointless unless there’s dirt under your fingernails. No social media following will ever match the value of even one person who truly loves you in spite of your flaws.
We’re enticed to the virtual world precisely because the norms and rules of daily life don’t apply. We reimagine ourselves in an alternative reality with reduced consequences and few physical limitations. But how we respond to the uncomfortable resistance of the world gives our lives critical meaning and context.
Fake lives don’t matter. They’re as valuable as the free accounts we use to set them up.
The real world often pales in comparison to our digital fabrications, but that’s entirely because most of us don’t post about our nine to five jobs, wrestling a toy car out of the toilet, and putting on the only clean clothes we can find.
Our virtual selves are quite bold, but the physical proximity of another human tempers us. We’d much rather have friendly neighbors than vent our spleen on every issue. The great sociologist Mike Tyson famously noted, “Social media made you all way too comfortable with disrespecting people and not getting punched in the face for it.”
We learn far more from actual experience precisely because of the consequences.
We didn’t know it as children, but flinging fruit taught us a lot about the world and each other. We confronted meaningful choices. Everyone benefited from the diplomatic de-escalation of green tomatoes instead of throwing rocks out of anger. In truth, the physical pain provided tremendous clarity of thought. The same can’t be said for a video game or social media exchange. Technology is fantastic when it supports reality and a dangerous trap when it provides a perpetual escape from it.
At the end of the growing season, I let my three boys loose in our garden after a hard rain. In short order, they reached familiar conclusions about the realities of mud, water, and tomatoes past their prime. When it came time for them to come in, they danced and spun in the frigid hose water. The cicadas sang just like they did a lifetime ago. As it turns out, kids haven’t changed that much. Our focus on living lives firmly grounded in reality shouldn’t either.
Cameron Smith is CEO of the Triptych Foundation, a 501(c)(3) non-profit. The Triptych Foundation promotes a virtuous society through investments in socially impactful media and business. He was recently executive director of the Republican Policy Committee in the United States House of Representatives. You can reach him at email@example.com.